2011.01.12 A banana pestilence?

Written by David Green.


Quick - name America’s favorite fruit.

Not the apple. Not the orange. It’s the banana. We eat as many of them in a year as apples and oranges combined.

It’s likely that you eat three or four varieties of apples over the course of a year—six or seven for me, probably—but that’s not the case with the banana. It’s the Cavendish that everyone eats. Every year several billion pounds of Cavendish arrive at our supermarkets from Latin America.

I’m picturing in my head a variety of fresh fruit spread out before me. I’m visualizing myself reaching out to take something. I think it’s the banana.

If the oranges were already peeled and sectioned, I might go for those first. Or maybe a bowl of washed grapes. But the banana...it’s quick and easy to peel. It’s quick and easy to spread some peanut butter on it. It’s really easy to eat it, and to have another later in the day.

The best banana eating is to spread some peanut butter across it and then dribble on some honey. It’s not really a banana taste anymore as much as something new with a banana base.

I think perhaps the addition of cinnamon might make it even better. I’ve never tried that before, but hold on. I’ll be right back.

I like it. I went a little heavy with the honey which isn’t really needed with a banana, but for me the cinnamon is a good addition.

My father doesn’t share the world’s love of bananas. Even the odor of a banana makes him feel a little nauseous. He says it’s the result of a childhood banana binge when he ate way too many. 

His disgust of the fruit became well known and his family was surprised the day he picked up a banana to eat. Actually, it was a special banana that held a candy bar inside.

As a lover of bananas, I recall the fearful day as a kid when I thought I might be following in my father’s culinary footsteps. I ate a banana popsicle—no, I couldn’t even finish eating it—when I felt so sick I thought I would never touch a banana again in my life. Instead, I’ve never again touched a banana popsicle. Come to think of it, I don’t really care for banana-flavored anything other than a raw banana.

Now that we know the banana is America’s favorite fruit, it’s time for the bad news. All we eat are Cavendish bananas. There are more than a thousand varieties of the fruit, but the Cavendish is king.

A British explorer came upon what was named the Cavendish when he discovered it growing in a garden in China. Other varieties are small or thin-skinned or bland tasting. Some bruise too easily, others ripen too quickly. There’s just nothing like the Cavendish. About 99 percent of all banana exports are Cavendish.

It’s a banana monoculture, which means that if there was a disease that killed the Cavendish, we might lose our favorite fruit.

Banana pestilence. It’s a fungus and it’s called Tropical Race Four. The Cavendish has already moved across Asia. China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Phillipines. Now it’s taking its toll in Australia. There’s no reason that Latin America won’t take its turn eventually.

A banana farmer in Australia put it this way to writer Mike Peed: “Americans are snookered. They better wake up and realize it, or they’re not going to have any bananas to eat.”

That’s a rather depressing thought to everyone but my father, however, this isn’t the first time it’s happened. The really good tasting banana—the Gros Michel that didn’t bruise as easily and didn’t require as many pesticides—was wiped out by a fungus in the late 1920s.

Researchers are hoping that genetic engineering will save the Cavendish, and even better, bring back the Gros Michel.

The search continues for existing varieties that might be useful, also. A professor from Brisbane, Australia, says the sukali ndizi from Uganda is his favorite banana. Sweet and fabulous.

So enjoy your Cavendish while you can.  It might be in short supply in a few years. And to think that I still haven’t smoked any dried banana peels. So much to do; such little time.

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